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Prediction: By the year 2050, our children’s children will be saying, “How could they do that? How could good people, knowing how important education is, let such a system take hold and flourish? How could they let the state, first, legally compel parents to send their children to school, second, tax them heavily for state-run schools, and, third, systematically miseducate their children? Weren’t they paying attention? Or didn’t they care?”
We are all captives of our culture. Like the air around us, we rarely think about it, let alone come to grips with it. There is a story about an anthropologist who was giving a farmer a labored, turgid explanation of “culture.” Finally, the farmer, anxious to get back to work, cut him short and said, “I think I got it. Culture is the way we do things ‘round here.”
Those cultural ways “we do things ‘round here” too often are unexamined. Not that long ago in our country human slavery was part of the way we did things. So, too, with voting. Women need not show up! Good people supported these unjust social policies with a clear conscience. They just didn’t “see” them. Today an injustice of equal importance and severity exists in our midst and it slides by with hardly a nod. That injustice goes by the name “public education.”
Our public schools, which enroll just shy of 90 percent of the nation’s children, are not the worst in the world. By international standards, they are mediocre, as in “the middle of the pack.” And although we speak of our public school system as one entity, it is, in fact, a vast, uneven enterprise, controlled by 15,000 centers of power. That is, school boards. These different controlling school boards, of course, provide strikingly different educational opportunities for our children. And, therein lies the system’s genius.
If parents don’t like the quality of the educational product being provided by their tax money and the local school board, they can move to another community which allegedly has a better quality of schooling. Or they can send Jack and Jill to a private or religious school. This exercise of a personal option is what has been happening in our urban centers. The school board members can take a collective sigh of relief because they have gotten rid of another disgruntled customer to the suburbs. They can even come up with a disparaging term like “white flight.” Everyone is happy.
But, wait. What about those taxpaying parents who cannot afford private schools or cannot afford to move to Wellesley or Watertown? Under pain of law, their children are forced to attend schools that, by every available measure, are failing their children. Sure, some parents can be neutralized by a charter school here and a magnet school there. However, the vast majority of these urban, and increasingly suburban, parents have to watch their children’s educative moment pass by. For too many students going to school is reduced to coping with a frightening and undisciplined school climate, with inadequate learning materials, and too many discouraged, burnt-out teachers. These parents have to settle for schools which are systematically disadvantaging their flesh and blood.
America is a country that celebrates freedom of choice in almost every area of life. We have choice of doctors, dentist, cars, homes, where and how we worship, what we read, recreation outlets, and some 200 plus TV channels! Someone once credited the fall of the Soviet Union to influential Soviet citizens getting a glimpse of the American supermarket -- a veritable temple of choice. We champion freedom of choice in almost every aspect of our lives except in education. This is unfair and an injustice, particularly to poor children trapped in failing public schools.
There is, also, a larger injustice served on all students attending the government’s school system. That is, the denial by exclusion of who we are. It is profoundly wrong in the name of education to ignore the central reality of human existence: that we are here in this world to know, love and serve God. Where once this spiritual dimension of life was central in our public schools, it is no more. Religion and the spiritual have been removed from our classrooms, and in many cases are the focus of ridicule. In place of the strong ideas and perspectives provided by religion, the public schools offer to our children the cold porridge of citizenship, seemingly unaware that citizenship and our connection to one another rests on the fact that we are children of God. What kind of an education is it that denies or obscures such a bedrock reality of our democracy! This lack alone should be enough to delegitimize our public school system.
We need a revolution. On May 22, 1787, 12 people met in a London print shop and started such a revolution, one that ended one of the world’s greatest injustices, human slavery. These 12, 11 English gentlemen and a freed slave, dedicated themselves to eradicate an evil that most of their friends and fellow citizens were either profiting from or simply didn’t see. Their closest friends and family thought they were mad for opposing an institution which had served them so well. But these deeply committed Christians saw an evil where others saw everyday life. It took them 50 years to eliminate slavery in the British Empire and decades more to spread to the rest of the English-speaking world, but this small band improved the lives of millions and millions of God’s children.
“Never doubt,” said Margaret Mead, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Until another group of Christians sees and reacts of the injustices and distortions of government run schools, more millions of God’s children and our fellow citizens will be systematically miseducated.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.